Long before Revolve Clothing Exchange opened its newest location, it had a Facebook page. The staff posted photos of shelving under construction and shoes headed for the racks. "Stay tuned for more awesomeness!" screamed a post about its vintage T-shirts. --The new and used clothing store wanted to build some excitement before opening at 4023 W Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa, said co-owner Kevin Hecht. And it didn't have a lot of money to spend on traditional media advertising.
The strategy worked. By the time Revolve welcomed its first customer Aug. 3, it had more than 100 fans on Facebook. Even better, a few of them stopped in to shop during the first week.
Hecht is one of many small retail business owners using Facebook for their marketing. Forget the grumblings about Facebook's paid advertising or falling stock price. Facebook's free fan pages get people through his front door.
"It's a really good way to interact with your existing customers and also to get new customers," he said. "Our audience (15- to 35-year-olds) is harder to reach."
Revolve's stores in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Ybor City have separate Facebook pages to promote their own merchandise and unique identities. Employees post photos of outfits and customers and whatever else they like. Links to music videos and random photos often generate the most feedback. (Wednesday's cute baby turtle photo got 19 likes.)
"Facebook gives us a face that we would have to pay a lot of money for," Hecht said.
Facebook's fan pages work particularly well for niche, independent shops with unique, limited-quantity merchandise and small marketing budgets, unlike major national chains. They don't need millions of followers; they target local ones most likely to come into their store. More than just another tool for raising brand awareness, their page content often results in direct sales.
Caterina Showalter, owner of JC's Boutique in Tampa, credits Facebook for about 70 percent of her business. Every time she posts a photo of new merchandise, people come into the store and ask for it.
In some cases, the reaction is immediate. Showalter described a time in which she posted a dress photo and 3 seconds later heard tires screeching and saw a car cross three lanes of traffic. A woman came running into the store and said she was a few blocks away, saw the post and made a quick detour.
JC's offers free shipping to anyone who sees something on Facebook and buys it over the phone, which has allowed Showalter to expand her customer base nationwide. In the next few months, people will be able to click on a photo in a Facebook post and purchase the item online through the store's website.
Showalter spends about $5 a day on Facebook ads but, otherwise, does little advertising. When she wanted to promote a recent big sale, rather than print up a flier or do a mailer, she blasted a post to her Facebook friends. Two hundred people showed up.
JC's Facebook following has grown from one fan to more than 3,200 since it opened 21/2 years ago. It took awhile -- and consistent posting -- before Showalter saw results at the register. Now, customers anticipate her posts and occasionally fight for first dibs on a new item.
"If I don't post a picture that day, I can pretty much guarantee that (the store) will be dead the next day," she said.
Jennifer Dutkowsky, owner of Why Not Boutique in Tampa, jokes that she's on Facebook all the time and can't understand why any small-business owner wouldn't take advantage of it. She began using the social media site in 2008 before it was in vogue and has found it hugely helpful in creating a buzz for her clothing and accessories store.
Dutkowsky uses the fan page to talk business but also to connect with customers on a personal level and build rapport. Occasionally, she spends a few dollars on an ad to better promote her posts.
"Good morning from the Port of Copenhagen!" she wrote about her recent trip to Europe, posting photos of the sights with a Why Not Boutique business card in the forefront.
Balancing work and personal updates keeps Dutkowsky's page fresh and in customers' minds. People get tired of constant solicitation, she said. They want some diversion.
"It doesn't have to be all about business," she said, noting that her shop dog, Chloe, is famous because of Facebook. "People really respond to the fun, personal, silly stuff."
But not every business owner says it's worth the trouble. Morena Herrera, owner of Agora gifts in St. Petersburg, tried Facebook for a while because everyone was doing it, but didn't see much benefit.
"We're a neighborhood place. We go by word of mouth," she said. "For us, it's about the interaction with people. They come in and chitchat with us, and they always find something to buy. Then they bring in their friends, and they become customers."
While widely beneficial to some retailers, Facebook isn't without its pitfalls. Customers can get ticked off if an item they saw in a post isn't in stock when they get to the store, Showalter said. And the new time line format doesn't ensure all your fans see your updates.
Too much focus on advertising could eventually erode Facebook's appeal, she said, noting the demise of Myspace as the preferred social media site. Already, businesses are moving toward Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram, WordPress and other networking sites.
"They'll be the next big thing," said Hecht, from Revolve Clothing Exchange. "We'll surf that wave when it comes."
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